GAMERS: THE WORLD’S NEXT SPORTS STARS?
Gaming has become a big deal in the past couple of decades, but the concept of eSports still
doesn’t sit well with many. We’re used to our sporting heroes ticking certain boxes, and having a look and persona that’s far removed from those associated with the gaming world. We’re used to seeing prime physical specimens who undergo rigorous training on a daily basis to allow their bodies to do things that mere mortals can only dream about. The last thing we associate with professional sport is the hackneyed idea of a nerdy teen with a gaming headset feverishly tapping away on a keyboard and clicking on a mouse - but the times, as they say, they are a changin’, and professional gaming is now a very real thing, offering the best of the best an arena to make a real name, as well as plenty of money, for
themselves by harnessing their talents. Are we really that far away from seeing eSports as a legitimate sporting endeavour? In a lot
of cases we’re closer than you might think...
When eCommerce giant Amazon announced that it was set to acquire online video streaming site Twitch last year for close to $ 1 billion, more than a few eyebrows were raised among the mainstream media.
Twitch had built a name for itself as the go- to resource for real- time game streaming, boasting in excess of 55 million users and more than 15 billion minutes of content after just three years in existence. Of those raised eyebrows, few came from the direction of those in the know about gaming. While the scope of the acquisition may have been a touch unexpected, particularly given that Twitch wasn’t exactly generating huge revenues, the knowledge that game streaming is a big deal has been around for a long time now. Part of the reason for Twitch’s success, as well as its desirability to a company like Amazon, is the fact that it ties in so well with the burgeoning professional gaming industry. Using the service, gamers from all over the world can tune in to watch the biggest names on the eSports circuit duking it out live at huge events - and they do, in their droves. According to data collected by BI Intelligence, Twitch accounts for around 43.6% of non- YouTube or Netflix streaming traffic in North America, easily dwarfing the market share of established outlets like WWE ( 17.7%), MLB. com ( 7.2%), ESPN ( 6.3%) and even CNN ( 0.8%). A few short years ago those numbers would have been completely unthinkable, but these days it’s par for the course, and where there’s that large a desire from viewers, there’s going to be serious foundations to build upon. Major gaming league organizers are finding it increasingly difficult to cater for the level of interest surrounding their events, with sold out stadiums across the world becoming the norm for big- name competitions - and that means that big money has managed to find its way into professional sports. The gaming industry is by no means a stranger to huge financial figures - it currently earns around $ 20 billion annually, more than the entire global music industry, and that growth is showing no signs of slowing down any time soon - but the idea that gamers can take each other on for huge prize pots is a relatively new development. In August last year Seattle played host to The International, a
tournament for players of DotA 2, an online real- time strategy game from Valve. More than 12,000 spectators packed themselves into the Key Arena, former home of the SuperSonics before they upped sticks and moved to Oklahoma City to become the Thunder, to watch the finals of the tournament as teams from across the globe battled it out for a piece of the unprecedented $ 11 million bounty. That tournament would ultimately be won by five- man Chinese team Newbee, who pocketed themselves a cool $ 1m EACH for proving themselves as the best DotA 2 players in the world. Not bad money for a few hours’ work... on paper at least. The truth is that there’s a lot more to eSports than just being “good” at a game. The guys who compete at the very top are in a whole other universe to the term “good”. These players are superhuman. They’re smart, fast and completely dedicated to the cause. They must put in thousands of hours of practice to reach a level where they can start thinking about competing in, never mind winning, a tournament like The International. Where a pitcher might spend a few hours a day working on his techniques, eSports competitors often spend every waking minute working to improve their already insane reflexes, tighten up their problem solving abilities and build detailed tactics that’ll give them the edge on their competition - all the while that very same competition is spending their time doing the very same thing.
However, despite the incredible work done by the organizers of these events, the competitors taking part and the millions of viewers, a question mark remains over the legitimacy of professional gaming as a sport. Outside those involved in the pursuit, few are willing to recognize it as anything other than young men playing video games in their spare time. There are plenty of individuals willing to put their necks on the line to assure that gaming receives the attention and respect they feel it believes, however. In December of last year Rob Pardo, former chief creative officer at Blizzard told the BBC that he believed gaming could go on to even bigger and better things in the future. “Video games are well positioned to be a spectator sport,” he explained. “There’s a very good argument for eSports being in the Olympics. It’s a very competitive skillset and you look at these professional gamers and the reflexes are lightning quick and they’re having to make very quick decisions on the fly. When you look at their ‘ actions per minute’, they’re clearing over 300.” Pardo acknowledged that acceptance of eSports would essentially require a change to the fundamentally understood definition of the word sport, however. “If you want to define sport as something that takes a lot of physical exertion, then it’s hard to argue that video games should be a sport,” he conceded. “But at the same time, when I’m looking at things that are already in the Olympics, I start questioning the definition.” Not everyone is in agreement with Pardo, though. President of sports broadcaster ESPN John Skipper firmly nailed his colours to the mast when asked last year about his opinion on eSports, saying “It’s not a sport, it’s a competition. Chess is a competition. Checkers is a competition. Mostly, I’m interested in doing real sports.” Curiously though, that quote came hot on the heels of ESPN signing a deal to broadcast The International, and Skipper’s core argument seems to be at odds with several of the “sports” broadcasted by his network, like fishing and poker - both of which
would be difficult to categorize as traditional sports given the, admittedly vague, criteria he laid out. Despite what the likes of Skipper think, though, it looks like it’s just a matter of time before eSports truly cross over into the mainstream. 2014 saw the debut of eSports at the X Games, with competitors going up against each other in a Call of Duty: Ghosts tournament, the winners nabbing a legitimate X Games medal for their hard work, and that’s continued in January at X Games Aspen with a Counter- Strike: Global Offensive invitational. Last month it was announced that the United Kingdom would be getting its very first dedicated eSports arena, which opens later this month and will cater for 500 spectators. It is estimated that the new arena, based on London, will play host to more than 30 events by the middle of September, with a cumulative prize pool of around $ 600,000 set aside for competitors. Canada, too, is not without its own firsts, with League of Legends player Danny Le becoming the first gamer in history to be issued a temporary working visa for the USA in the P- 1A category, intended specifically for those travelling to the States to compete as an “internationally recognized athlete”. Regardless of what the mainstream media and general public think of professional gaming or eSports, the continued success of online broadcasting has ensured that it’s going nowhere. Records are continually being shattered in terms of viewership of live streamed events, with tens of millions regularly logging in to view the most popular League of Legends events annually. Last year’s LoL World Championships final drew an impressive 27 million unique viewers which, although less than the record 32 million that tuned in to the previous year’s event, is nevertheless far too big a number to be ignored for too much longer. As to whether we’ll see eSports in the Olympics any time soon? That remains unlikely, but stranger things have happened...